Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Many Halvas Found In Greece

Halvas (this is the Greek spelling) while available in many places all over the world really hasn't caught on as a popular dessert treat in many countries.  Halvas, loosely translated, means sweet food. For the most part halvas is a dessert specialty often found in Middle Eastern, Jewish, or Greek bakeries.  It's kind of a shame, because not only are there many varieties to choose from, it offers such great potential as a candy ingredient too.  Most people are not really familiar with the many varieties available either, and often they've only tried one variety.  People also don't understand how much better this treat can be when it's fresh.  Since moving to Greece I've been lucky enough to sample so many varieties of halvas both fresh and packaged.  A dessert I used to think very little about has quickly become one of my favourite sweet treats.
Sesame halvas is probably the kind of halvas that most people have tried.  Chances are the Sesame halavas you sampled was imported from somewhere in the Middle East or Mediterranean, and it probably wasn't that fresh.  Unfortunately this particular kind of halvas is the easiest to ship, and also unfortunately it's the kind that often turns people off of halvas forever.  Don't get me wrong; there are many great Sesame halvas in the world, however many of the pre-packaged varieties just don't cut it.  They're dry, chalky, and have no discernable flavour.  A good Sesame halvas should taste of toasted sesame with a hint of chocolate sometimes.  It should melt in your mouth almost like a honeycomb.
Semolina halvas was the first step I ever took outside of the dry sesame halvas world.  At first it terrified me, it looked nothing like sesame halvas, and I already thought I didn't really like Halvas as it was.  This particular halvas is much softer and moister than the sesame halvas.  Because of this, its shelf life is very limited, I've made batches of this only to see it go bad in a couple of days.  When you get it fresh, it's absolute perfection.  Best of all, one of the keys to making semolina halvas flavourful is in using syrups, and you can flavour these syrups any way you like.  This means that this halvas has an unlimited choice in flavour potential.  If you can boil it in sugar and water, you can use it to flavour semolina halvas.  The base ingredient, semolina, has a slight toasty flavour, so it can really work with just about any sweet syrup concoction, even maple syrup would work.  Add a few nuts into the mix and you can have a really creative sweet treat.
Farsala halvas is the most mysterious of all halvas.  Many candy makers I've spoken to say it's the most complicated of all halvas to make.  The recipes for the high quality stuff are closely guarded secretes, but one of the key ingredients I’ve learned is cornstarch.  It's said that the highest quality Farsala halvas is only available in its origin town of Farsala in Greece.  Fortunately for me the piece you see above was purchased there, and I can attest to this claim.  Farsala halvas has a shelf life of about 1 week in your refrigerator, but nothing is better than getting a slice that is still warm, straight out of the oven.  It's not as gelatinous as it might appear, and the texture is best compared to the filling in a sugar pie or butter tart.  It's very sweet, and since it’s primary ingredients are cornstarch and sugar, it's not very healthy for you.  The thing is, as soon as you take a bite of this sweet treat, the strangeness of its texture and the fact that it's completely unhealthy for you will fade out of your mind.
As I mentioned before, halvas is a very versatile sweet.  One way to really enjoy any variety is to cover it in chocolate.  While halvas can be very sweet, it's often also fairly nutty as well, and this combination lends itself well to blending with chocolate or cinnamon.  I've only touched on many of the varieties of halvas available in the world, you can get them made with many different seeds, nuts, and flours, each lending a different flavour into the mix.  While you may only be able to buy the packaged variety of chalky sesame halva at your local store, the Internet is filled with many halvas recipes well worth trying at home.  This is a sweet treat well worth sampling in its many forms, and in particular well worth sampling as fresh as you can get it.


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